Hawthorn is a common sight around the UK. With it comes a slew of folklore and superstitions! Its name comes from Anglo-Saxon word ‘hagedorn’, which means ‘hedge thorn’. This refers to its use as a boundary plant. Farmers used hawthorn in their hedges to protect their crops or cattle from witches (Woolf 2015). Some believed any farm stock kept in a field with hawthorn nearby would thrive (Baker 2011 : 69).
It’s often referred to as may blossom, though it doesn’t always blossom on May Day. It used to, until the calendar changed in 1752. This meant hawthorn was more likely to blossom in the middle of May, rather than on the 1st. Still, in Suffolk, if a servant could find any blossoming hawthorn on May Day, they’d win a dish of cream for bringing it home (Baker 2011 : 68).
May Day was the only day on which it was safe to bring hawthorn into the house. Ruth Binney suggests the practice of bringing may blossom in came from a Roman celebration of Flora, goddess of flowering plants (2018: 33). Garlands made of hawthorn later found their way into May Day celebrations, where they helped to symbolise new spring life (2018: 35).
Yet May isn’t always the warmest of months. You might have heard the old proverb, “Cast ne’er a clout ‘til May is out.” Here, clout means clothes. In short, the proverb advises you not to shed your winter clothes until the end of May (Martin no date)!
Anyway. Let’s go and meet the hawthorn and dig into its folklore.
Hawthorn Trees and the Home
There are several links between hawthorn and death. Christ’s crown was believed to be made from hawthorn. Meanwhile, its pungent aroma was likened to the smell of death. Medieval people felt it reminded them of plague corpses (Woolf 2015).
This isn’t entirely fanciful. We now know that trimethylamine, found in hawthorn blossom, also forms in decaying tissue (Kendall 2020). People would have been familiar with this smell due to the old practice of keeping corpses in the house before burial.
The smell is perhaps one reason for the belief death would follow if you brought hawthorn indoors (Baker 2011 : 68). Sleeping in a room where hawthorn blossom was on display would attract misfortune (Baker 2011 : 68).
It’s Not All Bad News
Yet as with everything folklore, there were always caveats. If you followed a specific procedure, you could bring it indoors and enjoy its benefits. For example, gathering hawthorn on Holy Thursday helped to alleviate its negative effects. If someone outside of the family then laid the bunch among the rafters, it would protect the house from being struck by lightning (Baker 2011 : 68).
Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud note the practice of bending a hawthorn branch into a globe. People hung them in the kitchen to bring good luck and burned on New Year’s Day. They burned the globe in a straw fire in a wheatfield to help protect future crops for diseases or witches. Then they’d make a new globe, its thorns singed from the embers of last year’s globe (2003: 169).
You could also wear a sprig in your hatband to prevent being struck by lightning yourself (Baker 2011 : 69). Meanwhile, you could also use hawthorn to bring luck to your home. Simply pick it at midnight on Twelfth Night and then keep it in your house (Baker 2011 : 69). Christina Oakley Harrington notes that a sprig of hawthorn hung above a baby’s cradle was a good luck charm in ancient Rome (64: 2020). For a modern version, add yours to a bag you can safely hang well away from little grasping fingers! (65: 2020)
The Fairy Tree
The trees stand on the threshold between our world and the Otherworld. They’re under the protection of the fairies, so you risk punishment if you cut them down. The only time you could bring the branches indoors was on May Day. It spelt disaster to do so at any other time. This is why you might often find a lone hawthorn tree seemingly standing in an inopportune place. No one wants to uproot them without the fairies’ permission (Woolf 2015).
Indeed, Margaret Baker relates the tale of a farmer in Worcestershire. The stream of sightseers to his hawthorn tree so annoyed him that he cut it down. Afterward, he suffered a broken leg, then a broken arm and his farm burned down (Baker 2011 : 70).
If you did need to cut one down, you needed permission first. You also needed the right reason. Felling one to improve a view or to build a house brought misfortune for whoever lived there. Yet you could cut one down for healing or ritual purposes (Baker 2011 : 70). Baker tells the tale of a house in Dorset. They cut down their hawthorn tree after running out of firewood, and retribution spanned the whole village. Chickens wouldn’t lay, cows wouldn’t calve, and people didn’t conceive any babies. The family planted a new hawthorn tree and the curse lifted (Baker 2011 : 70).
If you want to see fairies, it’s said the best way to do it is to spend time near lone hawthorn trees. Spending time near a lone hawthorn tree was said to be most dangerous on May Day, Midsummer, and Halloween. By ‘dangerous’, that just means you increase your chances.
This clearly didn’t phase Thomas the Rhymer, who fell asleep under one while enjoying his favourite view. He saw the Queen of Fairyland as she rode by, and the Queen took a fancy to him. According to the legend, Thomas willingly went with her to act as a servant. When he finally returned to our world, seven years had passed. Still, he’d kept his vow of silence while in Fairyland, and the Queen rewarded him with the gift of prophecy as a result. Personally, I can’t tell if that’s a cautionary tale or good career advice. Click here for a more extensive post about Thomas.
The Glastonbury Hawthorn
The hawthorn marks a peculiar example of a tree surrounded by pagan belief that successfully crossed over into Christian legend. According to the tale, Joseph of Arimathea brought the Holy Grail to the British Isles. He slammed his hawthorn staff into the ground in Glastonbury, where it took root. The hawthorn tree that grew there could apparently flower in May and at Christmas. The Bishop of Bath and Wells started sending a sprig of hawthorn to the monarch for their Christmas table during the reign of James I (Woolf 2015).
The Parliamentarian troops of Oliver Cromwell cut down the original hawthorn during the Civil War. Thankfully, someone had taken cuttings so the tree lived on through its descendants. The botanists at Kew Gardens managed to graft a replacement tree, which they relocated to Glastonbury in January 2013 (Woolf 2015).
This isn’t the only link between hawthorns and Christianity. According to Paul Kendall, the land now occupied by Westminster Abbey used to be called Thorney Island. According to legend, a stand of sacred hawthorn trees stood there (2020).
Indeed, you still find them in churchyards. I found this magnificent pair in the churchyard of Haltwhistle’s Church of the Holy Cross.
The Useful Hawthorn
As with the elder tree, that we met last week, the hawthorn is an incredibly useful tree. People made jelly and wine from the berries and the blossom. The wood made an excellent choice for tools since it was good to carve. Hawthorn is particularly favoured for divining rods (Binney 2018: 46).
Women could collect dew from hawthorn trees in May. Washing their faces with it would preserve their beauty. You might remember the same belief about the elder tree! Men believed they would improve at their chosen craft if they washed their hands in the dew (Woolf 2015).
Some have used its berries, leaves, and flowers in herbal remedies to treat migraines, insomnia, high blood pressure, and heart disorders. It appears in magic to promote love, marriage, intuition, prosperity and happiness (Woolf 2015).
Finally, a Somerset charm for a festering wound also involved hawthorn. It was also relatively simple by the standards of some charms. All you needed to do was get a thorn from a hawthorn tree and pass it over the wound while saying,
“Christ was of the virgin born,(Baker 2011 : 71)
He was pricked by a thorn,
It never did bell or swell,
I trust in Jesus this never will!”
The Clootie Tree
You can often find a hawthorn tree near burial chambers, springs, stone circles, or ancient wells. People would tie a rag on the tree so the cloth would absorb the shrine’s healing powers (Woolf 2015). We often call them clootie trees, and by the time the rag rotted off the branch, the healing would have taken place (Binney 2018: 61). Unfortunately, people now tie materials onto the trees that don’t biodegrade, including various manmade fabrics. It’s nice that people want to continue the old traditions but it becomes problematic when they do so in ways that pollute the environment.
If you must insist on following the practice, try using a braid of pure, undyed wool, or unbleached linen. Basically, pick something that is as natural as possible and won’t end up hanging there for thousands of years. The whole point is that it heals your ailment by rotting away so why use a material that doesn’t break down?!
For those of you who’d like to encounter the hawthorn tree in a more environmentally friendly way, don’t worry. If you can’t get out to meet one, I’ve created a brand new guided meditation to meet the spirit of the hawthorn. Just hit play on the video below to give it a go!
What do you think? Do you think the tree is dangerous, or worth preserving? Let me know below!
Baker, Margaret (2011 ), Discovering the Folklore of Plants, third edition, Boxley, Oxford: Shire Classics (aff link).
Binney, Ruth (2018), Plant Lore and Legend, Hassocks: Rydon (aff link).
Harrington, Christina Oakley (2020), The Treadwell’s Book of Plant Magic, London: Treadwells Books.
Kendall, Paul (2020), ‘Mythology and folklore of hawthorn’, Trees for Life, https://treesforlife.org.uk/into-the-forest/trees-plants-animals/trees/hawthorn/.
Martin, Gary (no date), ‘Ne’er cast a clout till May be out’, The Phrase Finder, https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/till-may-is-out.html.
Simpson, Jacqueline and Steve Roud (2003), Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford: Oxford University Press (aff link).
Woolf, Jo (2015), ‘Hawthorn – bride of the hedgerow’, The Hazel Tree, https://www.thehazeltree.co.uk/2015/04/25/hawthorn-bride-of-the-hedgerow/.
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